Friday, August 30, 2013

In Theaters: BLUE JASMINE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Woody Allen.  Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alden Ehrenreich, Max Casella, Tammy Blanchard, Annie McNamara, Daniel Jenks, Max Rutherford, Shannon Finn. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Woody Allen goes back to drama after last summer's TO ROME WITH LOVE, a botched misfire that failed to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle sensation he had with 2011's surprise smash MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  Whether it's NYC, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, or London, Allen has always had a knack for capturing the spirit of a city on the screen, and that's the case here as he heads to San Francisco for BLUE JASMINE.

Cate Blanchett delivers one of the best performances of her already-sterling career as Jasmine, a divorced woman of wealth and privilege whose world of lunches, yoga, shopping, and dinner parties collapsed with the arrest of her Madoff-like Wall Street investor husband Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Humiliated, ostracized, and with no one to turn to in her NYC social circle, Jasmine goes to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a plain woman who Jasmine has always dismissed (both of the sisters were adopted, and their adoptive mother always said Jasmine "had the good genes").  Divorced from her contractor husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), Ginger lives in a small apartment above a store with her two rambunctious young boys and is getting serious with mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale).  Jasmine can barely stomach being in such confines, claiming she's broke but mentioning she flew first class in the same sentence.  Jasmine talks of going back to school and lowers herself to get a job as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and sees her situation taking a turn for the better when she meets widower Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who works for the State Department and has political aspirations.  Meanwhile, Jasmine's presence irritates Chili and causes a rift between him and Ginger, which sends her off with nice-guy sound engineer Al (Louis C.K.).

Even in his comedies, Allen is a master of exploring relationships--romantic, familial, etc--and even without revealing every detail about their lives, you pick up on where people have been and what makes them tick just through his dialogue and through the performances.  Watching Blanchett's Jasmine tell her whole "what brings me to San Francisco" story to the woman sitting next to her on the plane and it's clear that this is a story she's rehearsed and told countless times and it really doesn't matter to her if anyone's even listening.  She's one of the most narcissistic characters Allen's ever written, oblivious to the concerns of everyone around her and often not even cognizant of where she is.  Note how many times we hear her telling a story only to have Allen reveal she's just sitting in a public place talking to herself.  And as long as her social standing was upheld, she more than content to not concern herself with Hal's illegal business dealings ("His business isn't my concern...if he asks me to sign something, I sign it") and ignore his numerous affairs, which was known to everyone but her.  It's a complex character, and Blanchett not only nails it, but she makes you feel sympathy for someone who doesn't always deserve it.

Though it's Blanchett's film and she has the title role, everyone gets to shine here.  Fine performances from people like Baldwin, Hawkins, and Sarsgaard shouldn't come as a surprise, but the biggest coup Allen pulls off here is the stunt casting of one-time shock comic Clay as a blue-collar schlub.  He fits into the role of Augie beautifully, inhabiting the mannerisms and the demeanor so well that you almost instantly forget the whole "Dice" persona.  Augie still resents Jasmine because she talked him into investing his $200,000 lottery prize into one of Hal's shady ventures and lost everything, including Ginger (Jasmine tells someone that "Augie used to hit her," but many of her comments are unreliable at best).  Paunchy and graying, Clay only has a few scenes but makes every one of them count (and Allen helps with little details like Augie's best clothes including a Members Only jacket).  Don't be surprised if Dice ends up with an Oscar nomination.  He's really that good.  And as he's shown on FX's LOUIE, Louis C.K. can handle serious acting, but of this ensemble, he's left with little to do.

BLUE JASMINE is a fine turnaround from TO ROME WITH LOVE, which was easily one of Allen's worst films.  The relentlessly busy filmmaker, pushing 80 and still cranking out a movie every year, has frequently succumbed to an element of sameness as time's gone on.  Many of his more recent films are fine enough while you watch, but instantly forgettable after, but they're almost annual comfort food at this point (the opening credits with the Woody Allen font, an old jazz tune, and the inevitable "Production designer Santo Loquasto").  I've felt no urge to revisit films like SCOOP, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, and WHATEVER WORKS, which were worth seeing but not really worth seeing again.  I enjoyed MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, but not as much as most people did.  Allen rarely challenges himself anymore and frankly, at this point, he doesn't have to.  It's just that having a new Allen movie each year (the last year without one was 1981) gives devoted cinephiles some peace of mind in an ever-changing filmmaking landscape.  If Woody's still getting something out every year--even something as uninspired as TO ROME WITH LOVE--then things are OK.   Given the sheer quantity of his output, is BLUE JASMINE a top ten Allen?  No, but it's his best dramatic work since MATCH POINT (though I also like the underrated CASSANDRA'S DREAM), and gets a major boost from the performances of Blanchett and Clay.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you liked this one as much as I did.